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A Comprehensive Half-Term Report on Liverpool’s 2013/14 Premier League Season

After their 2-0 home win over Hull City to start the New Year off with three points, Liverpool are now fourth in the Premier League table with 39 points from 20 games, and just over halfway into their quest for a return back to the Champions League.

All told, it’s been an encouraging season for Brendan Rodgers’ men so far, and with the prolific Luis Suarez in their ranks, the Anfield side currently boast the second highest goal difference in England’s top flight with +23 (46 scored, 23 conceded).

Most Reds fans—indeed, probably including the Liverpool management and players—would have taken fourth in the league at the start of 2014 if it could’ve been offered to them at the start of the season, yet how do they stand for the rest of the season?

In the following 10 slides you’ll find a comprehensive half-term report on Liverpool’s season halfway into the 2013/14 Premier League campaign, where we’ll assess different aspects of the club’s performance thus far, before arriving at a prediction on how far the Reds can go this season.

Enjoy, and give us your take in the comments below.

 

Formation and Playing Style

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Clive Brunskill/Getty ImagesBrendan Rodgers came to Liverpool in the summer of 2012 with a well-known fondness for a 4-3-3 formation favoring quick, short passes and constant movement of the ball. His Liverpool team showed unfamiliarity with his new methods and thus got the 2012/13 season off to a slow start.

A year on, his team roared to a perfect start to their Premier League campaign in a more familiar 4-2-3-1 formation, with Daniel Sturridge leading the line as lone striker in Luis Suarez’s continued absence due to suspension. Sturridge was to score his side’s first three goals of the season in three consecutive 1-0 wins.

Those three victories over Stoke City, Aston Villa and Manchester United were achieved in stark contrast to Rodgers’ slick possession-dominant style, as they reverted to defence first in the second halves and ground out the wins. A case of warming up to the new season, perhaps, but the Reds have only achieved three clean sheets in the league since then.

As Suarez returned in brilliant form, Rodgers encountered a selection dilemma, and eventually opted for a 3-5-2 to accommodate his free-scoring strikers and also take advantage of his strength in numbers in central defence.

Right when this surprise 3-5-2 formation was suggested as the Liverpool way of the future, Daniel Sturridge got injured, leading Rodgers to switch back to his favored 4-3-3, with Philippe Coutinho and Raheem Sterling flanking Suarez as the central striker. This was the start of a scintillating personal campaign for Suarez that has seen the No. 7 score 20 goals in just 15 league games thus far, in the process becoming the fastest player to hit the 20-goal mark.

All this was achieved with a new withdrawn regista role for Steven Gerrard, who played alongside Lucas and provided a newly revitalized Jordan Henderson with the platform to charge forward. New signings Iago Aspas and Victor Moses both tried and failed the No. 10 role, while Coutinho has taken up a place on the left cutting in to support Suarez.

Gerrard’s relatively pedestrian contribution in the side could have been considered an antithesis to Rodgers’ all-action style, but his long balls and set-piece delivery in turn led to goals in every manner possible: Liverpool, having picked up a reputation for being weak defending set pieces, also became known for their goal-scoring prowess from free kicks and corners. (Luis Suarez’s deadly finishing from free kicks outside the box also contributed.)

When Gerrard himself was injured in the beginning of December and Joe Allen was fit enough to return to the starting XI, Liverpool began to transform into something more akin to a Rodgers staple. A midfield trio of Lucas, Henderson and Allen, while remaining in the 4-3-3 formation, pressed and harried opponents into losing possession, thereby sticking to Rodgers’ “death by football” mantra, and looks to be Liverpool’s image in the medium to long term, especially when Gerrard eventually calls time on his career.

In just six months at Anfield, we witnessed transformations and progress in Liverpool’s tactical setup and playing style while the points continued to be picked up. We’ll have more on each area of the field and Liverpool’s progress from last season in the coming slides.

 

Transfers

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Jan Kruger/Getty ImagesFor players who joined the club in the summer, find our grades and analyses on how they’ve done in their first six months at Anfield in our guide here, where we assess them on value for money, impact and potential.

We’ll cover most of the first-team players in the following few slides focusing on the Liverpool defence, midfield and attack.

 

Defence

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Clive Rose/Getty ImagesOne of the stories of Liverpool’s season thus far is the return to prominence of Martin Skrtel—if prominence can be measured by first-team starts.

Since his return against Manchester United early in the season, Skrtel has been a fixture in Brendan Rodgers’ starting XI, having made 18 appearances this season already with two goals to his name.

While he enjoyed a resurgence in form for a few months, in recent weeks he has committed a number of defensive errors—not least in the buildup to Samuel Eto’o’s winning goal against Chelsea on December 29—that have largely been glossed over. Questions will continue to arise of his blatant shirt-pulling in the box, as well as of the relative lack in vocal leadership and on-field organization when Skrtel is playing.

Alongside Skrtel, Daniel Agger and Mamadou Sakho have taken turns as Rodgers’ starting left-sided centre-back with mixed results, as Agger—despite having been awarded the vice-captaincy in the summer after Jamie Carragher’s retirement—hasn’t been able to find the consistency and form that previously made him an Anfield icon.

Sakho, on the other hand, established himself as first choice over Agger prior to his hamstring injury sustained at Stamford Bridge. In Sakho’s absence over the coming few weeks, however, Agger will have a chance to reestablish his place in the starting line-up. If he manages to sustain his performance against Hull City on New Year’s Day, Rodgers may well have more to think about when Sakho returns.

On the right flank, Glen Johnson has been ever-present, but sadly out of sorts at the moment, having put in a series of lethargic and uninspiring performances in recent weeks. A lack of genuine competition in the right-back slot hasn’t helped, but Rodgers will surely continue to look at Martin Kelly’s fitness and form to see when would be a good time to reintroduce him for some much needed competition to Johnson.

Jose Enrique had started to enjoy an improvement in his form at left-back before he was ruled out with a lengthy injury layoff in November. Jon Flanagan, a right-back by trade, came into the side after on-loan Aly Cissokho failed to assert himself, and the academy graduate grabbed the headlines with a standout performance in the Merseyside derby and an exciting first-ever senior goal in the 5-0 rout of Tottenham Hotspur. Cissokho’s decent display against Hull after Flanagan himself was injured will have been encouraging—and a relief.

Overall, Liverpool’s defensive record this season speaks for itself: A total of 23 goals conceded, just over a goal a game—with just six clean sheets—is not good enough, though an all-conquering strikeforce has rendered it a lesser concern for the time being.

Their proneness to concede from set pieces, as well as questioning positioning on counter-attacks—not helped by a gaping central midfield hole—will be two key defensive issues for Rodgers and his backroom team to iron out for the second half of the season.

 

Midfield

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Paul Thomas/Getty ImagesAh, the midfield—so important to the Rodgers philosophy and Liverpool’s style of play.

Before we elaborate further, we must first recognize the work and rise of Jordan Henderson at Liverpool Football Club. Just a year ago, Henderson had the choice of continuing his career at Fulham or fighting for his career at Anfield. He picked the latter, and Rodgers has been impressed enough to give him almost a permanent starting spot in his first XI.

Put simply, Henderson has blossomed. There is a newfound confidence, a refreshing swagger in his play, while he has been able to put his incredible work rate to good use in pressuring and harrying his opponents.

His passing has been positive, and his running in the advanced midfield position has been direct and threatening. If he adds the finish and the final ball to his game, Liverpool fans may finally forgive his £16 million price tag.

Alongside Henderson, another midfielder to flourish recently is Joe Allen, who is enjoying a new lease of life in his “second stint” at Anfield, if we can call it that after a lengthy injury layoff following a mixed half-season last year.

Having returned to the line-up after Gerrard’s own injury, Allen has upped his game considerably following a painful miss at Goodison Park and has become an integral part of the dynamic, interchanging midfield now delighting fans week in, week out.

And like Henderson, Allen needs to work on his composure in front of goal. As the midfield unit progressively moves forward on each attack, every midfielder has a chance to break through and arrive in the box. They need to take their goal-scoring chances.

Further back, Steven Gerrard and Lucas have had mixed seasons thus far. A common criticism leveled at the Reds this season is that their midfield has the tendency to implode against quick and powerful opponents, as was evidenced against Southampton, Arsenal and Chelsea. Both Gerrard and Lucas do not have the legs or the positional awareness to hold the midfield, and thus the central areas are badly exposed, especially against counterattacks.

Gerrard has contributed three goals and six assists in his 16 Premier League appearances this season, which suggests that he still has a big part to play at his club, but may not be a good fit in the Liverpool blueprint going forward. Lucas, meanwhile, may find his importance diminished and first-team status affected if Rodgers does sign a defensive midfielder in January.

In the first half of the 2013/14 season, we’ve seen a few different identities, as we laid out in the first slide on formation and playing style. The changes and variances are all anchored in and affected by the midfield: Gerrard’s presence allows for a more varied approach but with more potential to be overwhelmed, while the recent Lucas-Allen-Henderson combination gives Liverpool a more relentless image.

It will be interesting to see when Rodgers decides to use which option when all of his charges are back to full fitness.

 

Attack

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Alex Livesey/Getty ImagesIt would be fairer to start this section with Daniel Sturridge, who got Liverpool through the first couple of months of the season, but 2013/14 at Anfield has been all about one man: Luis Suarez.

Suarez, having publicly flirted with an exit from the club in the summer, was forced to buckle down, and buckle down he has. Not only that: He’s improved on almost every aspect of his play and seemingly on his attitude as well. A devastating improvement on his finishing has seen him rocket towards the summit of the Premier League scoring charts, setting records along the way.

In addition to becoming one of the most feared strikers in the world, Suarez has also kept his hardworking style, which makes him Liverpool’s defender from the front and an important component of a relentless, pressing unit. It’s just as well that they managed to sign him on a new and improved contract extension in December.

But before Suarez came back with aplomb, Sturridge was the one carrying the Liverpool team. With nine goals and two assists in just 12 league games, Sturridge has enjoyed a fruitful season as well, carrying on his form from last season—just not as stellar and exhilarating as Suarez.

A rapidly maturing striker in his own right, Sturridge will likely return to first-team action in January, giving Rodgers a tactical dilemma and opponents all the more reason to fear the Reds.

But Liverpool fans had been looking forward to Sturridge’s return since the confirmation of his injury layoff, so why would it give Rodgers a dilemma? The answer lies in Raheem Sterling, who has come back into the first team and showed signs of continued development and growth with a series of exciting displays on the right of the frontline.

Sterling’s pace, trickery and direct running have caused opponents all sorts of problems since his own return to the first team, and his three goals in 15 appearances show that he is starting to add the final touch to his impressively all-rounded game, something that fellow attacker Philippe Coutinho also needs to work on.

It was always going to be hard for Coutinho to reprise his excellent first half-season at Anfield after signing for Liverpool last January, as opponents would have had six months to figure him out. With that said, while he has shown the vision, creativity and pace that were so threatening last season, he has yet to hit the same heights. A paltry sum of two goals and two assists this season sums up his difficulties, though he has largely been played on the left instead of in his favored No. 10 position.

With the league’s second most prolific scoring record, Liverpool have other areas than their forward line to worry about for the rest of the season. Their existing attacking setup will continue to deliver.

 

Strengths

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Clive Brunskill/Getty ImagesSo with the lengthy summaries of each on-field department now covered, let’s move towards Liverpool’s strengths in their first six months of the season.

Without a doubt, Liverpool’s set piece mastery needs to be mentioned. For a team that struggles so regularly in defending set pieces, their prowess attacking form is surprising and quite extraordinary. Nonetheless, all three of their regular starting central defenders—and, of course, Suarez and Sturridge—have scored from set pieces, largely due to the world-class deliveries of Steven Gerrard.

The evolution in Liverpool’s approach play also deserves a mention here, as they have started to dominate games completely and blow away their opponents: Their “goals scored” column is so emphatic because they have really honed their craft going forward this season. They have now scored 87 goals in their past 38 league games, 10 more than their highest-scoring full season in the Premier League era.

A product—or perhaps the foundation—of such fearsome attacking play is their excellent home record this season. Anfield has well and truly regained its “Fortress” moniker, as the Reds have stormed to nine wins out of 10 at home this season, scoring 27 goals and conceding just six in the process. Their 27 points from a possible 30 at home this season is just behind Manchester City (30/30) and Chelsea (28/30).

Finally, we must devote some column space to the youngsters at Rodgers’ disposal: A young goalkeeper in Simon Mignolet and a future star in Mamadou Sakho; the pace, industry and massive improvement of Jordan Henderson and Raheem Sterling; and the undoubted quality in Philippe Coutinho and Daniel Sturridge. This is a squad whose full potential lies ahead of them and whose young age needs to be regarded as a strong asset.

 

Weaknesses

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Alex Livesey/Getty ImagesThere have been a few weaknesses of note evident in their season thus far, however.

Just as we started our coverage on Liverpool’s strengths with their set piece prowess, so we must highlight their vulnerability at defending set pieces and crosses into the box. The unconvincing defending and unsure positioning in such situations have caused panic to spread among supporters and manager alike in those situations—Rodgers had already outlined his concerns back in October, according to the Liverpool Echo.

We’ve touched on this in our slide on the midfield as well, but it bears repeating here: The gaps that open in the midfield area due to positional errors, pedestrian pace and a lack of specialist defensive midfielders can hurt Liverpool badly, especially on the counterattack.

Steven Gerrard’s return from injury may be a double-edged sword and must be managed carefully by Rodgers, who has seen a revolution in his midfield performances during the captain’s absence.

For a side that possesses such a fearsome scoring record and frontline, Liverpool could do with further improvement in their finishing across the squad. While this obviously doesn’t apply to Suarez and Sturridge, the rest of the team needs major work in this area.

Allen, Henderson, Coutinho and Sterling have all missed absolute sitters this season. It’s tempting to think where Liverpool would be at now, especially in terms of goal difference, had they scored at least some of them.

 

Results

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Jamie McDonald/Getty ImagesOn to results, an area that has seen a massive improvement over last season, largely because of the improvement in Liverpool’s attack.

A prolific stretch that started in October and lasted all the way through December saw the Reds score 23 goals in just six home games, while a five-goal hammering of Tottenham on December 4 will go down as one of their best Premier League performances of all time.

It’s not for no reason that Liverpool finish round 20 in fourth place: They’ve simply outplayed opposition they’ve needed to beat and regained that useful habit of picking up points in winnable games on paper. An overall record of 12 wins, three draws and five losses in 20 games—including a few major refereeing controversies—is more than admirable.

So it is on those five losses that we will focus, but the surprising thing—and the silver lining—is that they can easily be remedied.

We’ve mentioned the Southampton and Arsenal losses in previous sections; hopefully further reinforcement to Liverpool’s midfield down the line will improve their record against teams strong in the middle of the park.

Lee Mason and Howard Webb’s officiating against Manchester City and Chelsea respectively drew widespread criticism from both Rodgers himself and the media at large. While Liverpool’s performance at Stamford Bridge wasn’t quite up to scratch—again, the midfield was at issue—their excellent display at the Etihad Stadium should have yielded at least a point, but for the referee’s whistle.

Which leaves the defeat to Steve Bruce’s Hull City, at the KC Stadium on December 1, as perhaps the lone outlier. The simple explanation is that Bruce’s side enjoyed a fine result and Rodgers’ men had an off day, and it wouldn’t be too far off as Liverpool just didn’t turn up for the match. A disappointing day out for the Reds, which fortunately hasn’t been replicated for the remaining matches until this point.

Liverpool quite clearly need further strengthening to their ranks, starting from this January, but their results thus far have highlighted areas they need to reinforce. Targeting those improvement needs should be able to bring about improved results for the remaining 18 games.

 

Progress from Last Season

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Clive Brunskill/Getty ImagesTo gauge Liverpool’s position at the halfway point of the 2013/14 season, besides evaluating it against their immediate rivals and in the context of just the past six months, a useful barometer would be where they stood this time last season.

On New Year’s Day 2013, with 20 league games played, Liverpool found themselves in 10th place on just 28 points, with a goal difference of +5. A quick comparison to their current picture (fourth, 39 points, GD +23) shows just how far they’ve come in the past year.

Brendan Rodgers deserves massive credit for this turnaround in results, as does the transfer committee for securing two of Liverpool’s most exciting transfer signings in recent history last January in Coutinho and Sturridge, who have been instrumental in the Reds’ growth this calendar year.

Keeping Suarez in the summer was perhaps more important than any signing they would’ve been able to make, as he’s almost singlehandedly fired Liverpool to their lofty position this season, but even besides the impressive increase in goals scored, the maturity in their overall play—particularly in recent weeks with Rodgers’ blueprint midfield—has been evident.

No wonder they’re mulling a new contract extension for Rodgers himself (c/o Mirror).

 

Potential and Prediction for the Season

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Alex Livesey/Getty ImagesWith a side capable of switching formations at will and changing attacking approaches when required, Brendan Rodgers has at his disposal a flexible, versatile and well-drilled unit that has the world at their feet and their best years ahead of it.

The key is to unlock his squad’s potential at the earliest opportunity possible, as this unpredictable and topsy-turvy 2013/14 Premier League season represents perhaps Liverpool’s best chance yet of getting back into the top four—perhaps their best chance in the coming years.

An impressive and encouraging first half of the season will need to be at least replicated for the next five months for them to have a shot at the Champions League places, but judging from the way they clicked after January last year, we can’t possibly put a limit on what they can achieve.

The key, then, is to have a productive January transfer window that will bring important new reinforcements to the squad capable of instantly upgrading the quality of the starting XI, which will be no easy task in itself.

20 games in, they’re just six points behind league leaders Arsenal, and just three games ago they entered Christmas Day on top of the tree. If they can build on their first-half successes and iron out their weaknesses, who knows how far Liverpool can go?

 

This article first appeared on Bleacher Report, where I contribute regularly on Liverpool and the Premier League.

English Football Weekly: Week 4 Recap; Arsenal’s Resurgence; The Loan Market

EPL Week 4 Recap: Opposing Fortunes on Tyne-Wear, Villa Stumble, Shelvey Show

As the top six confirmed their status as the Premier League’s elite group with another series of predictable results this weekend (barring Chelsea’s 0-1 reverse at Goodison Park), let’s look at the so-called “mid-table” clubs, where the action is really getting interesting.

Starting with Tyneside and Wearside. Newcastle United were tipped for a chaotic season, especially after their controversial appointment of Joe Kinnear as their Director of Football, but barring an opening-day drubbing at the hands of Manchester City, they’ve actually been on the rise. Loic Remy looks like he’ll be a fine addition, while Yohan Cabaye’s return to the first team will be significant in the Magpies’ return to form. Hatem Ben Arfa stands out in what actually is a very decent squad on paper. And with seven points thus far, Newcastle stand proud.

Not so much over at the Stadium of Light though, which has surely seen many a fiery outburst from Paolo Di Canio in the Sunderland dressing room. Can you blame him? A solitary point in four games has condemned the Black Cats to the bottom of the table, but it is the manner of their defeats that should really be concerning. Di Canio’s latest public criticism of midfielder Cabral won’t help much, and their next five fixtures? West Brom, Liverpool, Manchester United, Swansea City, and the Tyne-Wear derby. It’ll be a long month and a half.

Not that Aston Villa have been faring too much better. After an impressive opening-day win at the Emirates Stadium, Paul Lambert’s side have lost their last three fixtures, albeit against tough opposition. Apart from a penalty scored by Antonio Luna on his debut against Arsenal, Christian Benteke has been their only scorer thus far, which means that for the team to climb up the table, the likes of Andreas Weimann and Gabby Agbonlahor need to start delivering the goods sharpish. A few challenging weeks ahead for Villa will test their mettle.

This wouldn’t be a very good weekly Premier League wrap if we didn’t mention Jonjo Shelvey and his impact on the Monday clash between Swansea City and Liverpool. If Man of the Match awards were really given to players who have an overall impact on a game, there wouldn’t be a finer candidate all weekend—or perhaps even all season—than Shelvey. After all, with a good goal and an exquisite assist, and two horrific passes, Shelvey was solely responsible for all four goals at the Liberty Stadium in an “excellent advert for the Premier League.”

Might Arsene Actually Know?

Four games, nine points, second place in the league. If it weren’t for Liverpool holding out for a point in south Wales on Monday, Arsenal would go into Week 5 as the league leaders, in what has been a quite remarkable turnaround of form and atmosphere at the Emirates Stadium.

We all remember the foul mood at the Emirates after their opening-day capitulation to Aston Villa and Christian Benteke, and Arsene Wenger will have found out that, for all of the technology and investment in a world-class stadium, it can be quite a nasty place to be. But three wins since, all accomplished in a quite comfortable manner—yes, even that one-goal win in the north London derby—and Arsenal are looking pretty good now.

Sure, Mesut Ozil will have been a key factor in turning around the Gunners’ attitudes, but even though he’ll no doubt inspire and win many points for his new club this term, he’s only been around for one of those wins. There are other reasons for Arsenal’s resurgence: the return to form of Aaron Ramsey, the maturing performances of Olivier Giroud, and an overall sense of immaculate teamwork and camaraderie in the dressing room.

Amidst all the hype and frenzy around Ozil—understandably and deservedly so, for he is one of the world’s best players—a quiet achievement by Wenger and his team is that they go to Marseille in the Champions League looking for a tenth straight win, which would be a club record. Confidence is brewing at the Emirates, and as ever, Arsenal just can’t be ruled out as a top-four team, even though they continue to be every season. And who knows? With further strengthening in January, they could become title contenders.

The Proliferation of the Domestic Loan Market

Cameron Jerome, Jason Puncheon, Kevin Phillips, Romelu Lukaku, Gareth Barry, Jake Livermore, Victor Moses, Aly Cissokho, Loic Remy, Johan Elmander, Stephen Ireland, Oussamma Assaidi, Fabio Borini, Ki Sung-Yueng, Morgan Amalfitano, Scott Sinclair, Matej Vydra.

Thus goes the list of first-team loan signings arriving in the Premier League this summer. That’s almost an average of one player on loan in each first-team squad in the top flight, where we know the likes of Manchester United, Manchester City and Chelsea haven’t participated in such a system except in the “loan out” category, and that’s not counting those loanees who might not walk straight into the starting XI.

That the loan system is attractive, as a means for top clubs to farm out talent who need top-level experience and consistent playing time and for lower-ranking clubs to improve their results on the cheap, is well-known. The likes of Daniel Sturridge and Jack Wilshere, now established Premier League stars, honed their talent on loan at Bolton Wanderers. Out of the 19 names in the above list, only four are from foreign clubs, and even then, two of them (Elmander and Vydra) have had experience in English football (with Bolton and Watford respectively).

But even bigger clubs are playing these days. Liverpool and Everton both have two names each, in the most high-profile representation of the benefits of the loan market to the Premier League as a whole. There have been suggestions that the likes of Chelsea and Manchester City are so far ahead from the pack that they can now afford to loan players to the Merseysiders (Moses, Lukaku and Barry), but equally it shows that in an age of relative financial austerity, the loan market can reap its benefits.

We’ll take the coming months to gauge the impact of the loan signings this summer—and as they perform well, more details of their loan arrangements (e.g. whether there is an option to buy, etc.) will come to light—and that could make for an interesting analysis in itself, but as the transfer window slammed shut, the proliferation of the loan market manifested. Watch this space.

 

This piece was part of my weekly column on SWOL.co, where I take a look back at the weekend’s English Premier League and domestic cup action, related talking points and news surrounding English football at large.

English Football Weekly: Style, Efficiency and Early Observations from Week One

City, United and Chelsea Turn on the Style

Manchester City might have been the latest to start their Premier League season, but by Monday night they were topping the table. Newcastle United have always been willing prey for City, but the manner of the 4-0 dismantling showed plenty of promise for season to come at the Etihad Stadium. Edin Dzeko, who didn’t end up on the scoresheet, was central to their attacks throughout, while Fernandinho and Jesus Navas made big impressions on their debuts. Manuel Pellegrini’s appointment raised expectations of adding a style element to City’s play, and if Monday’s result was anything to go by, City fans have a lot to look forward to this season.

Not that Manchester United were too far behind. David Moyes has had two competitive matches in charge, and both of them have been convincing wins. This latest result at the Liberty Stadium not only confirmed the sheer class of Robin van Persie, but also went about disappointing some critics who had been writing off Moyes’ chances at the reigning league champions (myself included). There are long ways to go yet, but Danny Welbeck doubled his league tally last season in one match on Saturday. In his cameo, however, new Swan Wilfried Bony showed enough to suggest that he, too, will be a force to reckoned with this season.

Save the biggest celebrations—certainly the biggest at a stadium on opening day—for Jose Mourinho’s return to Stamford Bridge. The Happy One was welcomed back in heroic fashion, and duly delivered a sublime display of attacking football in the first half, before Chelsea calmed down in the second. The trio of Eden Hazard, Oscar and Kevin de Bruyne were all over the pitch, interchanging play nicely with Fernando Torres, while Frank Lampard provided a timely reminder of his undeniable goal-scoring prowess. The football that Chelsea played in the first half was out of this world. Who would’ve thought that possible under Mourinho?

 

Three Points and Early Conclusions

Plenty of domination, possession, exciting attacking play and shots on goal, but Liverpool once again had a solitary goal to show for it. The difference: the winner was scored by a still-not-fully-fit Daniel Sturridge; a heroic double save was required at the death by their first first-choice keeper in eight seasons; and it was their first opening-day home win in 12 years. Results and points have always teetered on a fine edge for Liverpool, and a win to kick off the season bodes well for the future. Kolo Toure, Jordan Henderson and Iago Aspas impressed, and if Willian really does arrive at Anfield, this could be a forward line that oozes quality—and goals.

Tottenham Hotspur also endured a nervy afternoon at sprightly Crystal Palace. For Spurs fans, this was possibly a sign of things to come, if indeed Gareth Bale does depart White Hart Lane for pastures new, but there were signs of comfort as Paulinho, Nacer Chadli, Roberto Soldado and later Etienne Capoue all debuted to great effect. Unfortunately for the Eagles, their lack of Premier League-quality players was all too evident: Here, endeavor just wasn’t enough. As for Tottenham, this new forward line could do with a sprinkle of Bale’s quality, but they showed enough to suggest that life after Bale might not be too bad after all.

Even given Arsenal’s lack of transfer activity, the ease with which Aston Villa came away with all three points will have been alarming. Indeed, most forums exploded with the anti-board (and anti-Wenger) anger usually reserved for the likes of Rafa Benitez at Stamford Bridge, and the atmosphere at the Emirates Stadium has gotten all the more venomous. You get the feeling that this is a make-or-break season for the Gunners, and it might be too late even for that. As for Paul Lambert’s side though, they look young and irresistible, especially if Christian Benteke continues his imperious form. His penalty-taking, though, needs some work.

There were also wins for West Ham United, where Stewart Downing finally did something resembling decent wing work, Southampton, where Rickie Lambert followed up a debut England goal with a peerless penalty winner, and Fulham, who left the Stadium of Light with a good three points. Sunderland failed to capitalize on their dominance, while Cardiff City and West Bromwich Albion just didn’t have enough in the tank. As for the most entertaining encounter? A 2-2 draw between Everton and Norwich. Ricky van Wolfswinkel’s excellent debut was only one out of multiple encouraging signs of things to come at Carrow Road.

 

Latest Signings and Verdicts

As we enter the final two weeks of the transfer window, the rumors are really heating up. It’s well-known that Arsenal need to strengthen—badly—and in delaying their transfer activity to after their first loss, Arsene Wenger may well have to repeat his panic buy period of 2011. But there are other teams who still need to add. There’s Newcastle United, who haven’t really strengthened at all this summer, and Crystal Palace, who still lack the quality to compete in the Premier League, and Manchester United’s joint bid for Marouane Fellaini and Leighton Baines reflects the need to improve the overall squad still.

But there have also been some excellent business done in the past week. Hull City added two Tottenham midfielders in Tom Huddlestone and Jake Livermore, who should add class, composure and PL pedigree to the Tigers squad. Etienne Capoue to Spurs was a shrewd piece of business, while Pablo Osvaldo to Southampton has been a real statement of intent. But Darren Bent and Scott Parker to Fulham represent exactly the type of low-risk, high-possible-return transfers that the Premier League needs more of. These are two new arrivals who could slot in immediately at Craven Cottage—and become instant hits.

 

This piece was my second instalment of English Football Weekly for the 2013/14 season for SWOL.co.

On Andy Carroll’s Possible Loan Departure

Since Brendan Rodgers arrived at Anfield, he’s done almost everything right.

Recognize the history of the club, conduct sensible and well-spoken press conferences, appeal to the players and fans.

Almost everything.

Amidst rumors linking Liverpool’s record signing Andy Carroll with a loan move away from Anfield, Brendan Rodgers has also failed to confirm his No. 9’s future at the club.

As West Ham confirm their interest in taking Carroll on loan for the season (via ESPNSoccernet), here are six reasons Liverpool and Brendan Rodgers would be absurd to let Andy Carroll leave on loan—and feel free to have your say below.

1. He’s on a High

The first reason is almost blindingly obvious: Andy Carroll is in a good run of form.

He ended the English Premier League season with a consistent run in the Liverpool first team, and turned in improving performances as the spearhead of Kenny Dalglish’s attack.

His domination over John Terry and Co. in two matches against Chelsea will serve as stark reminders of the aerial ability he brings to the table.

This form was replicated with a few more encouraging displays with Roy Hodgson’s England in this summer’s European Championships, and his goal against Sweden was a classic England center forward’s header.

With a new manager coming in and Carroll’s personal desire to prove himself as a Liverpool player, Liverpool should see an ambitious young striker return to training in a few weeks’ time.

2. Fan Backlash

Because of this encouraging upturn in form for both club and country, Carroll’s place in the hearts of Liverpool fans has risen considerably.

For a fanbase still smarting from Fernando Torres’ exit a year and a half ago, and for a club still looking for a fearsome striker, Carroll represents, to some extent, a possible striking hero in the making.

The potential to see Steven Gerrard start alongside Carroll and Luis Suarez will also be one that fans are looking forward to.

To strip this hope away before a ball is even kicked doesn’t seem too sensible.

Brendan Rodgers will do well to take note that the Kop’s say in the proceedings is usually quite large.

3. Who’s the Replacement?

Liverpool’s well-known Achilles’ heel from the 2011-2012 season was their inability to finish their chances.

In a fluid passing system with a striker capable of scoring and setting up chances aplenty for his teammates, Carroll might offer a clear solution to the Reds’ conundrums.

And if he leaves?

Luis Suarez, while a world-class creative forward on his day, doesn’t finish like a predatory striker can.

And the likes of Clint Dempsey and Fabio Borini—who have been linked with moves to Anfield in recent weeks (via the Daily Mirror and BBC Sport)—while they possess encouraging goal-scoring records, are not one-stop solutions to Liverpool’s goal worries.

4. Every Good Team Needs a Plan B

In Rodgers’ ideal 4-3-3 formation, Liverpool would field players capable of ball retention, control and movement on the pitch to dominate possession of the ball.

The idea is that, just like Swansea last season and aspiring to Spain this summer, there is no need to field a physical striker when technique and passing is all that is needed to win.

All of which sounds well and good, but this is a Liverpool that needs time for Rodgers’ tactics and ideas to work across the board.

When the pundits called for the addition (from the start or from the bench) of a striker and wingers to Spain’s 4-6-0 formation in the Euros, they had “Plan B” in their minds.

If all-conquering Spain, with their footballing philosophy permeating through their national setup, need a Plan B, Liverpool would most definitely need one in Rodgers’ first season.

5. Or a Plan A

And who’s to say that Andy Carroll wouldn’t make a credible option in the starting XI?

While Rodgers has a clear idea of the Spain-inspired system he would like to implement at Liverpool, he has conceded that his formations will be based on the players he has at his disposal.

With a record signing who just happens to be a targetman with some fearsome attributes, Liverpool could have the flexibility to employ a variety of tactical setups.

What about a dual-striker system that requires the midfield to break through and lay on chances (Italy)?

Or a targetman-boasting system that relies on a high-pressure midfield and wingers cutting in (Portugal)?

These are all options that require strengthening in different positions, of course, but nothing that a Rodgers 4-3-3 wouldn’t need anyway.

6. What He Needs Is First-Team Experience at a Top Club

In recent days, Andy Carroll has been linked with newly promoted West Ham (via the Daily Mirror) and Fulham (via the Telegraph), whose Clint Dempsey might be interesting Liverpool.

He might get his (and Rodgers’) wishes of extended playing time, but this is not what he needs.

With all due respect to the Hammers and the Cottagers, Carroll got his sustained first-team action during his breakthrough Premier League season playing for a newly promoted Newcastle side.

Carroll needs constant exposure to the pressures that come with being a striker for a club expected to win week in, week out.

Of course, in the (almost) immediate aftermath of the Euros, Andy Carroll was linked to Italian giants AC Milan (via the Daily Mail).

The abundance of forward options present at the San Siro (Zlatan Ibrahimovic, Antonio Cassano, Robinho, Alexandre Pato) should ensure that Carroll wouldn’t be faring that much better in terms of minutes on Italian shores.

Conclusion

When Kenny Dalglish splashed the cash for Andy Carroll—regardless of how much a panic signing it had been following Torres’ desire to leave for Chelsea—he saw a striker who would be central to a pass-and-move philosophy.

A year and a half on, his successor, Brendan Rodgers, is supposedly already considering Carroll’s future in a similar passing-based footballing style.

Andy Carroll, quite simply, should be given the chance to establish himself at Anfield.

 

Original article from Bleacher Report

Swaps, Options and Futures

When the Hicks and Gillett regime was ushered out last year, I wondered if we were taking a massive risk in bringing in American owners yet again. When Luis Suarez was signed in January, I wondered if we were taking a massive risk in bringing in a top scorer from the Dutch league. When Fernando Torres was allowed to leave on deadline day, I wondered if we were taking a massive risk in breaking transfer records for an unproven replacement.

I wondered many times out loud, as we made our signings this summer, if we were taking massive risks. I questioned the wisdom of paying inflated fees for Jordan Henderson and Stewart Downing. I doubted if Charlie Adam would be fit to lace Xabi Alonso’s boots. I hadn’t watched Jose Enrique much during his time at Newcastle. I hesitated about the signing of Alexander Doni, our umpteenth backup goalkeeper since Pepe took up his gloves between the goalposts.

These were average players, I thought, who were way too expensive as stop-gap measures while we would grind our way back to European football this term. We would probably have to let them go in search for better and more pedigreed replacements if we ever made it back to the Champions League, and even then we would lose out to the Cities and Chelseas in the race to pay big wages.

Yet, in they came, and out some others went. I wanted Charles N’Zogbia for 9.5m. I wanted Phillippe Mexes, Taye Taiwo and Nuri Sahin on free transfers. I read about Tottenham’s interest in Lassana Diarra on the cheap. I wanted Adam Johnson on loan. I wanted Aquilani to stay after some fine preseason performances. I didn’t want Insua, who I rate highly as a young defender, to leave. A few thousand miles away from the transfer action, I wanted a say. And after witnessing the second half meltdown against Sunderland, I unhappily thought I was vindicated, and all the delirium and euphoria from the exhilarating first-half showing came crashing down. Here we go again, I thought.

Then we went to the Emirates. And then we destroyed Bolton at Anfield.

I found myself suddenly opening my eyes to a Liverpool team that, for the first time in a long while, could play around with our personnel selection. Never mind Kenny’s 3-5-2 ploy against Stoke and Chelsea last year: we could now play all the formations in the world with our strength in depth. (Oh, the wonders of victory.) My eyes glittered as I thought of Suarez, no, Carroll, no, Suarez and Carroll, no, Suarez and Kuyt with Carroll coming off the bench, in attack. My heart fluttered when I saw a front three of Downing, Kuyt and Gerrard behind Suarez – or was it Suarez, Gerrard and Henderson behind Carroll? I got slightly disappointed when I realized I forgot about Maxi Rodriguez and Glen Johnson. I was even more baffled when I realized that we were launching outrageous attacking moves without Steven Gerrard. How on earth would we fit him back in the side?

As we passed and moved all over the pristine Anfield grass against Bolton, I saw Henderson’s defence-splitting chances, Downing’s touchline crosses, and Adam’s Hollywood passes. The glowing, glistening and glittering post-match reports only confirmed to me Kenny and Comolli’s transfer policy this summer: not only were we now loaded with alternatives in abundance, but we were now full of first-teamers who can create a damn good goal-scoring chance.

Upon the close of the Summer 2011 transfer window, Damien Comolli immediately lavished praise on our new owners. John Henry took a massive gamble and showed incredible patience, he said, because he was willing to buy before he sold.

I thought we were taking a huge risk when we let go of Aquilani again, despite some stellar performances in preseason. I thought we were taking a huge risk when we said goodbye and thank you to Insua. (Not so much Konchesky, Jovanovic, Cole, and Poulsen, among others, mind you.)

But when I woke up after the 11pm BST transfer deadline to see that Raul Meireles had left for Chelsea, I felt strangely un-disappointed. Because, like his news item on Liverpoolfc.tv, his importance had already been taken over by more exciting headlines. Craig Bellamy, a seasoned campaigner, was back, presumably as an impact substitute, and a high quality one at that.

And we signed Sebastian Coates, who I first saw playing an absolute blinder at the Copa America final against Paraguay before looking him up on Wikipedia, finding out he was 20 (unbelievably) and still playing in Uruguay, and subsequently making him my top defensive preference in the summer window.

Sometimes I get a bit too excited a bit too easily for my own good. Eh, it’s a risk I’m now willing to take. Hello, optimism.